Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Making Choices

A service for 3rd February 2013.

Reading - Chapter 23 from The Life of Pi by Yann Martel  


Reading - The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost


In the last ten days I made rather a strange decision for me.  I chose to go to the cinema, not once, but twice, and each time to see what turned out to be a rather long film.  First I had better explain why it was a strange decision.  Well you see the thing is that I cannot sit for long periods of time without suffering with severe discomfort because of the arthritic problems I have in my hips and spine.  Since the arthritis developed in the 1990’s I only rarely have made a trip to the cinema and then it has to be to see a film that I feel I really must see.  So you can perhaps understand my dilemma when not one but two such films happened to be showing.  And I must say that both films were worth the discomfort I suffered in seeing them.  In the end both films made an impression on me in terms of reflecting on my religious beliefs and the choices that I have made over the last decade of my life.  The films were The Life of Pi and Les Miserables and both films struck me with their message about God, about faith and also about the choices we make in our lives.

Before I look at these two films I am in no way going to attempt to tell you the stories.  If you want to know then you too will have to choose to go and see them or read the books.

Looking at these films in reverse order I shall begin with Les Miserables, a musical version of Victor Hugo’s rather long and difficult novel which has probably plagued many English Literature students in their time.  I have not read the book, nor have I seen the musical before but I must grudgingly admit that I admired this film even though I am not a lover of musicals generally. I never could understand why one would sing a story. But looking beyond my difficulty with the music the depiction of the story made me want to read the novel.  One of the things that struck me about the story was that it all hinged on choice.  Caught in the act of thieving from a church, the main character is saved by a priest who chooses to help the thief and claims that he was not stealing after all but only taking what he had been given.  This simple act of charity on the part of the priest causes the thief to look at his life and turn it around. He develops a belief in God and chooses to spend his life trying to make amends for the wrongs he has committed in his earlier life and this influences how he reacts to future events.  It reminds me of a Buddhist tale that can be found in Bill Darlison’s book of wisdom stories The Shortest Distance

The Thief who Became a Disciple which tells how  - One evening, as a holy man was saying his prayers, an intruder entered his house and, holding a big, sharp knife to the holy man’s throat, demanded his money or his life.  Unruffled, the holy man said to the thief, ‘Don’t disturb me. Can’t you see I’m busy? There’s some money in the drawer over there.  Take it!’, ‘but don’t take it all,’ he said ‘I’ve got some bills to pay tomorrow.’
The intruder, surprised at encountering such a strange response, left some money behind, and as he was leaving the house, the holy man called after him, ‘Isn’t it good manners to thank a person when he gives you something?’
‘Thank you,’ said the thief, and off he went.
Some days later, the thief was caught by the authorities, and he confessed all his crimes, including his offence against the holy man.  Who, when called as witness for the prosecution, said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, this man is no thief.  I gave him the money, and he thanked me for it.’
The thief was jailed nevertheless, but on his release from prison he went to the holy man and became his disciple.

In both the film and this tale someone’s life is turned around because their choices are influenced by the choices and actions of someone who has devoted their life to God and in their turn the thieves choose to seek salvation through searching for God or religion in their own lives.

When it comes to The Life of Pi – I have read the book and was deeply moved by it.  There is much in it about belief and God that I find relates to my own religious development.  In most reviews of both the book and the film it is spoken of as a spiritual experience that will move one spiritually and make one believe in God.  I find the chapter that I read to you earlier speaks to me about my own personal search for God and why it is I was drawn to the Unitarian faith.  It emphasises that there is not one particular God but rather that there are many ways in which to experience God for oneself.  Following the point where the imam and the priest proclaim: “But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.”
The chapter continues with this passage:

“. . . my father said, “I suppose you’re right.”
 Mother looked at me. A silence fell heavily on my shoulders.
“Hmmm, Piscine?” Mother nudged me. “How do you feel about the question?”

“Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God,” I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.

My embarrassment was contagious. No one said anything. It happened that we were not far from the statue of Gandhi.  I fancy that he heard our conversation, but that he paid even greater attention to my heart. Father cleared his throat and said in a half-voice, “I suppose that’s what we’re all trying to do – love God.”

I thought it very funny that he should say that, he who hadn’t stepped into a temple with a serious intent since I had had the faculty of memory.  But it seemed to do the trick.  You can’t reprimand a boy for wanting to love God.  The three wise men pulled away with stiff, grudging smiles on their faces.

Father looked at me for a second, as if to speak, then thought better, said, “Ice-cream, anyone?” and headed for the closest ice cream wallah before we could answer.  Mother gazed at me a little longer, with an expression that was both tender and perplexed.

That was my introduction to interfaith dialogue. Father bought three ice cream sandwiches.  We ate them in unusual silence as we continued our Sunday walk.”

This is a powerful passage about the question of choice when it comes to faith.  In the end we all have to choose.  Our lives are continual acts of making choices; from the moment we get up in the morning and decide what we shall wear and what we shall eat for breakfast, until the moment we go to bed and fall asleep. Choices govern our days and the way we live our lives; sometimes they are choices affected by the actions of other people but more often they happen in spite of the actions of others a bit like in the story today. Sometimes they are small insignificant choices but sometimes they pertain to the larger more significant questions.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross says:
I believe that we are solely responsible for our choices, and we have to accept the consequences of every deed, word, and thought throughout our lifetime.

So maybe, whatever sort of choice we have to make, just maybe those choices that we have made and are yet to make will have a lasting effect not just on our lives but on the lives of those all around us. Just like the lives of the thieves from Les Miserables and the Buddhist tale were made different as a result of their choices in response to another’s actions.

Whatever happens though, in our choices it is important that we can make the decision as the poet Robert Frost asks in his classic poem on choice . . .
To take the road less travelled, maybe, or
To set out not knowing what will happen, or just…
To walk with hope amid the questions….

For after all, as John Schaar said:
         The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created--created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.

Maybe by making the choices we have already made, the choice to be here in this Unitarian Church following a faith that is after all a faith of choice….  Maybe, like Pi we are all making the ultimate choice:  the choice to love God wherever we find God to be.
   So may it be.  Amen      

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